2004 Photos of the Rainbow Tank Lead to 2014 ACLU Lawsuit

A worker on top of the natural gas tank by the expressway in Dorchester works on some lines for prep work to repaint the artwork. Painted by Corita Kent, the rainbow image on the Boston Gas Tank is one the world's largest copyrighted art work.
A worker on top of the natural gas tank by the expressway in Dorchester works on some lines for prep work to repaint the artwork. Painted by Corita Kent, the rainbow image on the Boston Gas Tank is one the world's largest copyrighted art work.
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe

If you’ve been here long enough, you call it the Boston Gas Tank (Eagle-eyed commuters got a peek at the old company logo on the tank during recent restoration work). Maybe you’ve heard it called the Ho Chi Minh Tank or the Rainbow Tank. But the artwork displayed on the LNG tank visible from the Southeast Expressway is technically called the Rainbow Swash.

You can call it what you like. But be very careful if you plan to photograph the landmark.

We’re not sure what professional photographer James Prigoff called the tank in 2004, when he decided to photograph it from public property. In a post on the ACLU’s website, Prigoff recalled the security guards who demanded he stop taking the photos, saying the tank was on private property. After that encounter, he went home to California and found a Joint Terrorism Task Force agent’s business card on his front door.

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From Prigoff’s account:

When I called Agent Ayaz, he asked if I had been in Boston recently. At that moment I realized that the security guards at the Rainbow Swash site must have taken down the rental car license plate number and reported me to a law enforcement agency. I never gave the guards any information about myself, so I must have been traced across country via my rental car record.

So, consider this: A professional photographer taking a photo of a well-known Boston landmark is now considered to be engaged in suspicious terrorist activity?

According to the ACLU, Prigoff was swept up in the government’s “Suspicious Activity Reporting” program. The civil rights group has sued the government, alleging the program does little more than target regular citizens exercising first amendment rights.

From the ACLU:

Troublingly, the standards defining “suspicious activity” do not require any reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and information about innocent activities by ordinary people ends up in counterterrorism databases to which local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have access. Because these loose standards define practically anything and everything as “suspicious,” the SAR program opens the door to racial, ethnic, and religious profiling, as we’ve repeatedly seen from actual SARs that have been revealed publicly. SARs can haunt people for decades, as they remain in federal databases for up to 30 years. An individual who is the subject of a SAR is automatically subjected to law enforcement scrutiny.

It’s not hard to find photos of the tank all over the internet , so why Prigoff’s photo shoot was considered so dangerous is a mystery. According to the ACLU, it doesn’t take much for someone to file one of these reports.